Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Food For Thought In Dijon

Just a simple salad in Dijon
The French are competitive eaters.  It’s not like the United States, though, where we stuff ourselves in a grotesque show of gluttony and speed-eating insanity at state fairs.  No, they are way more serious about food than that.  This seriousness has even caused a bit of a food crisis.  Now this may be hard to get worked up about if you come from the land of McDonald’s and Applebee’s, but – brace yourselves – French restaurants have begun to serve packaged or frozen food reheated in a microwave.

Quelle horreur!

First there were Michelin stars.  Now, as food lover and Burgundy resident Lynn McBride explains, a committee of French chefs are proposing a new label to post on restaurants announcing that all food is prepared fresh and on-site because the dirty little secret is out that French restaurants have started using packaged food.  Imagine that!  Restaurants are supposed to hire people who know how to cook.  I sure was raised wrong because in the U.S. I always thought it was about which one had the best 2-for-$20 special or which one’s servers worked the hardest at being my BFF even if they couldn’t get my order right.
Another simple salad
Imagine a world in which food is cooked fresh.  On a stove.  For people who appreciate food.  And no one starts pushing you out the door after 20 minutes of eating so they can turn over your table to the next people and make more money.  Ninety minutes for lunch, reflection, conversation with friends.  Absurd!

Since the traditional French meal and the whole philosophy surrounding the routine of it, its art, and its community-building essence have qualified it for a UNESCO list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage, the idea that a restaurant dessert may have come from Picard is a scandal.

But not only do the French give restaurants seals of approval.  Apparently entire cities earn special designations as Cite de la Gastronomie.  And that’s what just happened to my city, Dijon.  The honor is not about how many Michelin star restaurants a city has (they do exist here), but how fully it represents the food culture of the country.  Dijon hosts a huge International Gastronomy Fair each autumn.  It’s mile zero on the wine route in Burgundy.  It’s surrounded by farms that produce that mustard you may have heard of.  It’s the home of Charolais cows that can make boeuf Bourguignon melt in your mouth.  You can’t walk down a street without tripping over a chalk menu board every twenty feet or so.

On Saturday my husband, Brad, and I decided to grab lunch after shopping in the marvelous outdoor market.  We picked a side street off of the main plaza, wound through the narrow passages of this ancient city and picked at random a small restaurant behind the Palais de Justice we had never tried.  At Carpe Diem, I had a simple Burgundian meal of beef cooked to perfection and vegetables, completed with a small chocolate pastry topped with two inches of fresh chantilly (whipped crème).  You could tell it was fresh not just by taste but because the menu was very small – whatever was in the market that week.  It reminded us that even lunch is a meal to be savored.

The scandal over packaged restaurant food and new labels showing cities and restaurants that retain the experience of the meal grows out of a recognition that the French are beginning to eat like the rest of us.  Fast.  On their feet or at their desk.  Sans home cooking.  On the run. With a sandwich. Cheapcheapcheap.  At a French chain restaurant or the American fast food creeping across the landscape.  Not as entertainment or to appreciate community but as a necessity to keep from fainting due to hunger.

I’m here to plead – don’t do it, people! Asseyez-vous.  Please sit yourself down and appreciate the wonder that is the French meal.  It’s just a short step between accepting that Flunch is an adequate break for dinner to welcoming American Olive Gardens and KFCs and Cracker Barrels on every corner.  Don’t let correcting strangers’ grammar and pronunciation become the last cultural tradition by which you’re known.

While at home in the U.S. I have many unique restaurants I love (“unique” meaning not a chain) and I love all the ethnic options, the basic food culture is fast-cheap-easy.  But pretty soon I’m rushing through the drive-thru on my way to somewhere else.  Our box of takeout menus is overflowing.  We slide back into eating in front of the television.  And that casual lunch in a hidden, quiet corner of a French town is a fading memory.  I vow to do better this year.

Poulet Gaston Gerard -- it's named after a popular mayor of Dijon and it's served in a miner's pail because the restaurant is at Place Emile Zola, which recognizes the writer who brought light to worker's rights in France.  Everything about their food recognizes French history and culture.

Tell me in the comments box about your favorite unique food experience anywhere in the world.  When do you sit down to savor a meal?  At home or only at restaurants?  Is it only on special occasions?  What’s your favorite food city and why?

And if you like reading the little things I say about France in my blog, you’ll love reading about life, family, food, wine, and all things French from an American perspective on French Word A Day.  Spend time with Kristin Espinasse and understand the country just a little better.  Or just revel in her fabulous photographs of the South of France.


Nadine Feldman said...

Once I was in a McDonald's in France...only because we were having a blood sugar crash. It was jam-packed with French. Quite a shock to see!

Of course, it's no coincidence that with these changes, the French are also having increased obesity and other health issues.

The time we spent in France has really informed how we eat now. I cook most of our meals and am always looking for interesting recipes. We buy food from the Saturday farmers' market. We like a leisurely meal. We gravitate toward restaurants that serve fresh, local food and avoid chains.

I can only hope that France manages to maintain this aspect of its culture. We need more slow food, less fast food in our world.

Anne B Wright said...

I just returned from a month in Italy. Half of the front of the Naples train station is a McDonald's. The train station is huge. That is not news, but the Americanization of the world's food is a giant ugly problem. By the way, I noticed while eating in good restaurants in places in Tuscany (maybe it is everywhere in Italy) that the frozen ingredients must be marked with an asterisk. I can't remember seeing this before.

Ellen Gregory said...

1. I'm rather shocked by this in FRANCE, of all places! Frozen meals in restaurants. Holy firetruck!
2. Living alone as I do, I'm very guilty of sometimes not cooking and always eating in front of the TV (or my computer). I don't do take-out very often, though. My shortcuts are more likely to be a frozen weightwatchers meal.
3. You are making me feel MUCH better about all the time I do spend in cafes for breakfast and lunch... there's some definite savouring happening then.

Muriel said...

One of the things I miss in London is the freshness of the French food. That said, the best meals I have ever had were in the Middle east. It has probably something to do with the sun...

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